As the modern-day economy marches on at a relentless pace, brands are being pushed further than ever before. Their core competencies are being challenged by the increased complexity, opportunity and volatility of nascent technologies. The ‘digital’ revolution has elevated consumer empowerment to an all-time high, and brands are expected to react.
With the explosion of technology and increased availability of information, consumers are not only very well informed, they are more involved with the brands and products that they interact with. This increase in consumer involvement in the use, curation and creation of products and content has resulted in a new, demanding customer. Through processes like A/B testing (among others), customers have all but become co-producers of brands. They look beyond the mere appearance of a brand, placing value on the experience they have with its products and services. In fact, we are no longer talking about consumers, we are talking about users.
And indeed, instead of buying things, people are now buying experiences. They no longer use a taxi service, they “catch a ride” with Uber. They don’t search for a hotel, they find “an enjoyable place to sleep”, using Airbnb. They don’t purchase a car, but an experience of “enhanced mobility” (BMW). An article in Harvard Business Review put it best: “People don’t just want to appear athletic, they want to be athletic.” (Nike). The brand has become the experience and the experience the brand.
The challenge therefore now lies in orchestrating meaningful, memorable interactions with a brand that go beyond the simple utility or functionality of its products and services. People demand enriching experiences, and the interactions that provide them with this are the lifeblood of it all. We refer to this demand as an “experience economy”. An economy where the sum of the interactions now shape an individual’s feelings about a brand, gaining substantial ground in terms of why they would engage with one brand over another.
But how can we design and evolve meaningful experiences—in both function and emotion—that both satisfy the user and evoke the core essence of a brand? As the saying goes, ‘digital is always in beta’, and this constant demand for evolution and novelty is a challenge for brands.
We believe that the answer lies in embracing human-oriented, digital-driven strategies that place the experience at the forefront. By embracing an experience-focused approach, we can anticipate and meet future user needs, engage with emerging disruptors and ensure the flexibility required for growth.
The user is your guide, and you are theirs
High-performing brands organize themselves around user needs. They focus on the use of the brand, on how people interact with it, and what can be done to enhance user experience. This allows them to think beyond the purchase, opening up the scope for a more holistic approach. How are their brands lived? How are they experienced?
Our work with brands has allowed us to formulate some of the fundamental challenges as follows:
How can we—as and through our brand—effectively respond to user needs?
What is the balance between capturing and keeping user attention? How much interaction is too much? How much does the user really need?
How can we create true reciprocity with the user? How do we involve them in forming and conveying the meaning of our brand?
The formulation of new challenges has inevitably given rise to a need for new working methods: where to start in a constantly shifting landscape? What to aim for when uncertainty is rife but inertia is lethal? Our goal is to design and steer brand experiences that empathize with both human and business needs, that lay the foundation for evolution and adaptivity without losing sight of the brand.
Digital, data and the brand
First came digital, now we are beginning to see ‘smart’. Smartphones, smart websites, smart apps, smart data, smart brands … but how smart is it all really? The massively increased availability of data and data processing capabilities has broadened analytics capabilities beyond belief and allowed for laser-focus on incredibly granular KPIs. We can now, it seems, ‘understand’ our users. But how do we make sure that the data playground doesn’t distract us from or put distance between the brand and its biggest champion: the user?
It’s vital to consider the following questions:
How do we measure and implement responsiveness on- and offline?
How do we work out ‘how much’ to brand?
How can we be informed about and predict what users want, whilst respecting their privacy? How can we humanize technology without compromises?
How can we be data- and KPI-driven without losing our creative edge? How much reliance on data is too much?
While the list of questions could go on and on, let’s stick with the core problem set. As we said before, ‘digital is always in beta’, but the longevity of a brand (its promise, purpose, vision) has to be ensured. Using data and analytics is undoubtedly valuable, but it is essential to anticipate and respect the autonomy and privacy of the user by providing them with the necessary transparency. The sum of all interactions must be aligned to the goals a brand has. For us, this adds up, once again, to focusing on the user and their experiences. With a clear set of aims in mind and working methods that reflect the challenge, we bring the brand to the experience and weave them together.
Beyond the screen
As interfaces evolve, our ability to brand them has to keep up. When brand departments consider digital experiences, it’s critical to think beyond the fragmented landscape of screens and browsers. We are witnessing successful companies branding formats like virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), extending their guidelines with haptic and aural patterns, sound and feel that captures the essence of who they are.
Interfaces are increasingly less predominantly visual, often occupying spaces that once were the domain of the graphic. Take the rise of AI and the introduction of voice interfaces as an example. Brands need to consider how they are perceived non-visually, down to the specific, fictional personality that represents them (Google Assistant, Alexa, Siri etc.). And yet experience can extend beyond the digital, to packaging and delivery, setting the stage for digital products. Apple has set new standards in delighting the customers with their unboxing experience—a cohesive, complementary addition to their digital offering, and intrinsic to the Apple ‘thing’.
Growing, adapting, advancing
As brands evolve, so must agencies. Embracing new thinking and working methods that enable innovation, reduce risk, synthesize and capture the interplay between brand, experience and value: that is the brand challenge of our time. Ever-changing, always challenging, but massively exciting. How do people experience your brand?
_Filippos Petridis is UX Strategist at MetaDesign.
_Photo-Credit: The GreenEyl